075. John Sherman

I was born in the summer of 1942 in Camden, New Jersey to a father and mother about whom I know little other than what I have been told by others. When I was three or four, my mother and father split up and I was taken to raise by my grandmother, a Holy Ghost Pentecostal Christian, and grandfather. When I was about ten or so, my grandfather died and my mother came back to town for his funeral. Soon thereafter, she was remarried to a sweet man, a tool and die maker, who gave me much, and provided me with the basis for a philosophical outlook on life. They took me back from my grandmother, and, within a year or so, we — my mother and step-father — moved to Southern California.

In 1958, when I was sixteen and in tenth grade, I stole my parents’ check book, booked a flight to New York with a bad check, and moved into the Plaza Hotel, where I assembled a wardrobe and other artifacts, went to a play on Broadway (J.B.), drank, ate high and finally bought a $2,500 Patek Phillipe watch in the hotel jewelry store — all paid for with bad checks from my parents check book (times were easier then for a child con man). The watch proved a little too much; hotel security entered the fray, made some phone calls to California, and came to get me. In the end, they called my grandmother in New Jersey who wired enough money to bail me out and get me a train ticket to her.

I lived with my grandmother for a while, got involved with a married woman, was found out by her ex-Marine husband, and escaped into the Army, where I soldiered poorly for three years or so in Germany.

Upon my discharge from the Army, I returned to New Jersey and my grandmother, and was hired on as an apprentice machinist at a shipyard in Camden, New Jersey, where my grandfather had worked. I learned a good trade to fall back on, and embarked on a pretty good run of good jobs and bad, and stupid adventures. Soon after finishing my apprenticeship, I worked as an ambulance chaser for a couple of lawyers for a while, then as a night shift supervisor at a Thompson Ramo Wooldridge Inc. (TRW) machine shop. Before long, a woman who worked for me at TRW left her husband and we took off for Southern California, where I settled into a career of poker, credit card scams, and fraudulent check operations. She didn’t stay for long.

When the police moved in to break up the ring of fences and check runners that I used to dispose of stolen merchandise and cash bad checks, I escaped by the skin of my teeth, and ran away to Oregon with another woman who herself was on the run from her husband with her three kids in tow. I took a job there as a photocopy salesman and was soon arrested when the car I was driving was checked by the Oregon police and identified as having been bought in California with a bad check. I was charged with the federal crime of Interstate Transportation of a Stolen Vehicle and transported to Portland, Oregon for trial at the federal district court there. I pled guilty expecting probation but was sentenced instead to three years in the federal penitentiary at McNeil Island, by a judge named Solomon.

I made friends there at McNeil, and together we agitated, read Marx and Engels and Lenin and Mao, came to see ourselves as political instead of criminal, and finally managed to instigate a thirteen-day non-violent work strike, at the conclusion of which I was put in the hole and told that I would stay there until my release — a promise kept.

After eighteen months in the hole, I was released from McNeil, and reunited with the woman with whom I had fled California, went to work for Boeing as a journeyman machinist in the R&D department, and joined the Revolutionary Communist Party. After several years, I left the RCP over an ideological dispute, and before long got involved with a ragtag bunch of anarcho-commies, led by my old comrade from McNeil, who called themselves with considerable grandiosity The George Jackson Brigade. Before long, I had persuaded them to abandon their anarchist ways, to stop bombing Safeway stores and the like where poor and working people had to shop for food, and put together a plan to sabotage the power for the richest neighborhood in Seattle — Laurelhurst — in support of a strike by electrical workers. We thought this might bring to their attention the extent to which their comfort relied on the labor of others. On New Year’s Eve, 1975, we shut down the power after calling the police and the news media to make sure that the action was carried live and in color on TV. It was a spectacular success. The strike was soon settled, and we moved on to bank robbery. Less than a month after Laurelhurst, we tried to rob a trailer bank in Tukwila, Washington and were caught in the act. One of us was shot and killed, I was shot in the jaw, and my old comrade and I went back to jail together.

I didn’t stay caught for long. About six weeks later, I escaped with the help of friends who had evaded capture at the bank, and we left town for a while to lick our wounds and gather our strength. We returned about a year later to rob banks, sabotage capitalist institutions, and cause consternation among our enemies. We managed to do just that for another year or so, after which we were caught again, tried, convicted (the trials were worthy of considerable notice in their own right, but there’s only so much drama can be fit in such an abbreviated sketch as I intend this to be), and sent to prison. After the trials, and before the trip to prison, I married Marianne, our court-appointed investigator, in a ceremony at the federal courthouse attended by a number of well and ostentatiously armed FBI agents — a literal shotgun wedding.

I had been sentenced to a total of thirty years — an act of leniency that almost gave the prosecutor a stroke — and sent to the US Penitentiary at Lompoc, from which I escaped with the help of my new wife a couple of months later.

I was put on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, but this time I resolved to stay straight, as it were. We moved to Golden, Colorado, and I took a job as a precision machinist at Sundstrand, an aerospace company in Denver. All was going quite well until I undertook a campaign to unionize this rabidly anti-union company in the rabidly anti-union State of Colorado. I was fired, but later was awarded a considerable settlement for violation of the labor laws that make it illegal to discharge an employee for union activities. I had made a record of very high productivity and accuracy in my work that made it impossible for Sundstrand successfully to claim that I had been fired for cause.

A couple of months after being fired from Sundstrand, Marianne and I made a mistake, we were caught, and I was returned to the federal prison at Marion, Illinois — at that time the “end of the road” intended for the “worst of the worst.” It is customary in the federal prison system to routinely transfer prisoners every couple of years or so, and over the years I did time in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; Atlanta, Georgia; Terre Haute, Indiana; Talladega, Alabama; Terre Haute, Indiana again; El Reno, Oklahoma; Bastrop, Texas; Sheridan, Oregon; Englewood, Colorado and, finally, Florence, Colorado.

During my years in prison, I studied philosophy, physics, metaphysics, etc. Early on, drawn by its unabashed celebration of a mystical reality, I even converted to Catholicism. Much later, in 1993, in a federal prison in Littleton, Colorado, I got involved with the Buddhists who were coming to prison from the Naropa Institute in Boulder. I was very quick to understand the teachings, and successful in my practice. The Buddhists were very happy with me, and they soon brought in a Tibetan lama and I took refuge and bodhisattva vows. In 1994, fifteen years into my sentence, an American spiritual teacher named Gangaji came to the prison. In her presence I discovered myself to be peace and freedom and love without condition. The next year was spent in an extreme state of bliss and in the clear seeing of the reality of the oneness of all being. The year of blissful experiences was followed by a year in hell, where I lost everything I had attained. I fell into abject despair. Finally, in desperation, I turned to Ramana Maharshi. I put all of my energy into the project of figuring out what he was asking us to do. I wanted to find an action that would either put an end to my torment or show me that it was, as I suspected, all completely hopeless after all.

These efforts to see for myself whether there was anything to be seen at all have brought an end to the life-long fear and hatred of life that had been the cause of all the trouble. The perfect intimacy with life that has resulted from that loss continues to reveal to me the absolute wonder of life as an ordinary human being in the natural state of being human.

In 1998, I was released from prison on parole and went to work for the Gangaji Foundation in Boulder, Colorado. Six months later the Foundation moved to Novato, California and took me with it. I worked for the foundation as a computer systems manager until July 1999.

On a Friday afternoon in June 1999, Carla and I discovered without warning that we were meant to be together. On the following Monday, we offered our first public meeting (Palo Alto, California), and on Wednesday afternoon we were married on the back lawn of our friends’ house in San Rafael overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

We have been together ever since, meeting with people ever since and, since August of 2001, we have lived in Ojai, California with our magnificent Maine Coon cat, Switters. I was released from parole in 2007.

John’s sites: lookatyourself.orgriverganga.org, johnsherman.org, thefearoflife.org

Interview recorded 6/19/2011.

Video and audio below. Audio also available as a Podcast.

75 thoughts on “075. John Sherman

  1. Do not mistake understanding for realization. Do not mistake realization for Liberation. – Tibetan Proverb

  2. States change. The unchanging isn’t a state. It’s quite possible for states of unhappy seeking to arise despite realisation. But they dwindle in the face of the unchanging. Doubts arise to mock realisation, of course they do, but this doesn’t mean that therefore realisation is a state that is subject to being lost, it merely means that doubts are arising to both test and strengthen confidence (a state) in realisation. Doubt and confidence are irrelevant. In fact, the truly confident should entertain doubt as a welcome guest, until it is time to say goodbye, otherwise one may only be in a state of self-hypnosis concerning what one ‘sees’. I’m not convinced that Sherman is necessarily ‘realised’ or ‘liberated’, but he has the strength not to be concerned about this at all. Everything everyone talks about are just opinions. There’s a lot to be said for leaving the spiritual kindergarten wherein it seems to be important whether one is realised/liberated or not. If anything, this concern for status in one’s own eyes (and in others for some poor souls prematurely called to ‘teach’) is a little ridiculous. Luckily, one eventually tires of constant assessment of one’s state, knowing that one cannot ever get this quite right since it is nothing whatsoever to do with you.

  3. Hi all. While this is old news, I didn’t really address Peter and would like to clear up what I was trying to say here. First off I felt rude for the remark I made about Rick’s MMY comment. That was a mean spirited remark that served nothing. In that instant I was the self serving asshole Peter was asking me about. That’s what I was copping to in my quick response on 6/28.
    All the biz regarding calling A.C. a self serving asshole, I had no problem with. Nada. Zip.
    But the big issue for me, was that by my poor use of words and getting on my high horse, was that what I was trying to communicate was lost.
    But I had no time to deal with anything as I was leaving for The High Sierra Music Festival. The grand American music melas, where folks like me go to worship by losing ourselves in music and dance. I came back and reread Peter’s questions and decided, I wanted to address them.

    Below is what I think is a clearer response to something Steve said about Tony Parsons and others being in a self hypnotic state, without my diverting from the issue with my tendency to get boisterous and rant.

    ‘I think what happens is that some people can have a full on awakening, and all is well and perfect with the world.
    Not Two. That’s it. Period. Nothing could be out of place
    Then in the case of some, the clear recognition and understanding becomes distorted and then fragments into parts. Then, these folks, some of who became ‘teachers’, come up with ways to re-capture or show others how to ‘get it’. Andrew Cohen is a perfect example. A very pure and clean awakening with Papaji, turned into all kinds of ways to purify and ‘improve’ upon ‘enlightenment’. He lost the truth of his awakening, and as time went on, he messed with and abused people who were devoted to and served him at a very high level. Others have done the same. Anybody else seen this sort of thing? Not Andrew, but teachings arising out of a fading of an experience in an attempt to recapture it.

    I have dear friends who are fully awake and stabalized in all this biz, what ever that means, who have nothing to say, teach, or change, because what would be the point? No matter what happens, there is only one reality. It’s all awareness, ______, _______, _______. Fill in the blank. They have not wavered from the truth. All is well. And yes they are engaged in life just like any Joe lunchbox out there.

    Below is my response to you Peter. Bear in mind I dig you man, and respect you, but I do take issue here. To me this is the same nit pick you threw at Steve when he gave info about Atma Vichara, even though you ‘urged it’s practice’ earlier. How ever, I am wide open to to any comments that can illuminate my own black holes.
    “chuckeer, mon ami:
    “When you perceive someone as a “self-serving asshole”, is that also what you perceive yourself as being not that as well?”

    Not in this context.

    “In other words, mon cher, are you often not what you perceive others to be?”

    Yes and no, and always. In the case of Andrew Cohen, no. He’s a dick. And if you want to know why I say that, I’d be happy to tell you, but not here. And for anyone else who believes in him, head’s up. In the case of some crummy driver pissing me off on the road. Yes, I am often that same guy before or further down the road. And in the big picture, the only perception I could possibly have is of me.

    “Chuckee’s feelings about AC, in particular, was not what piqued me. I was more curious about those instances… any instance… when he pegs someone as a self-centered asshole.”

    You gonna have to clarify this one Peter. Other than Andrew and myself, who am I calling assholes?

    “Most people, when they label someone as that, usually come from a space where they believe that they are not that. It’s a vehicle of separation, I’ve discovered, from my own internal adventures.”

    Dude I am somewhat hip to Shadows and that biz. I’m pretty upfront on these pages and call it as I see it. We have all been witness to me being rude and sometimes behaving like an egoistic asshole who thinks he knows something. We have also seen that I am not overly attached to holding on to my point of view, and that I am usually quick to cop to my behavior. My nature is such that I get into trouble with my mouth. Debilitated moon in house of speech, bla bla bla.

    “Which is why I asked what I did.”
    “I know how big he is on the issue of separation, so I was curious if he also saw seeing someone as something that you are not as a separation dynamic.”

    Sometimes I just comment on what I see, and don’t give it a second thought. In that case, all there is is me. Sages and assholes.

    Like I said, I have a lot to learn about communicating clearly and kindly on the web, and I am grateful to you all for being so fine and putting up with me.

    Hey just got back from Mexico getting my teeth fixed. What do you think?

  4. The critical element is noticing that you are here is doing it with the intent of noticing just that.
    For some reason that makes it profound. It is not the solution in and of itself. Just recognising that is a fleeting experience and something we can know about. However doing it with the intent acts like an antidote to the suffering arising from the alternate view of dualism that grasping at oneself and ones situation as being me.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love John and think his message is profoundly helpful if you get it and in getting it you have the ability, time, conditions and mental space to work it. However I feel he underestimates the conditions required. To use an extreme example, if someone was sticking red hot irons up your bum and down your throat there is no way that you could calmly reflect on the fact that you are here. Similarly people have different levels of agitation and obscurations in there mental set up that make this practice seem inane, and useless. These people will need other supportive practices to get them to a point where they can appreciate the value and relevance of what John is saying. Hence although it could be all we ever need to do, the compassionate teachers give other methods to subdue and prepair the mind for great methods like this, even though this would have worked from the get go.
    What’s interesting is that teachers who say all you need is this, have usually done allot of spiritual experimentation and work before they themselves got it!
    John was living like a celibate prison monk isolated from pretty girls and attractive things so his mind was protected from being drawn out for 16 years! That has a great pacifying and empowering effect on the mind. He had the rare conditions for cultivating the fertile field and the moment arrived of waking up.
    Compassion and clairvoyance can perceive what and individual will have to go through before a practice like this will genuinely be useful and impactful. Hence a fully enlightened being may direct someone to do various practices, before offering such a teaching because just offering this is not the most effective way for that person. Even though it is the most effective practice when you have the karma to hear, appreciate and hence try!!
    The majority of people sitting at the feet of sincere teachers will claim that their lives have improved greatly from being involved with their teachers and the practices. A handful will actually liberate themselves. This is the same for many traditions. I dare say -it is the same with those who listen to the great John Sherman.
    Now what’s important to understand hear is that all you people who are very much into John and his method of ‘being aware of being aware with intent,’ who are thinking – ‘No this works. It works for anyone who tries it full stop. You don’t need anything else. So you shouldn’t bother with anything else. Anything else is a waist of time. Just do this and all will be well.’
    That’s true for you whilst it’s true for you which hopefully will last.
    Whether you free yourselves fully will be tested by time.
    One or two will free your self for sure, because the method is appropriate.
    Yet the reason you hear and appreciate and get the benefit is because you have the karmic set up to appreciate it at this time. You are most fortunate. I guarantee that there are many more people that have listened to John and turned away and moved on for countless reasons.
    For them they could not hear it or get it or appreciate the simplicity or manage to maintain the enthusiasm for it – even though it is spot on.
    These people will hopefully find something that helps them soften their minds or find an angle that gives them access to the same point, so that they will eventually appreciate and stay with the truth in the light that John tells it with his supreme simplicity and clarity for those who can hear!!
    Some extensive traditions accommodate these people with a great elaborations and complex philosophical conundrums, purifications, practice, retreats etc etc. These traditions do offer these seemingly less direct practices out of compassion for the many who cannot hear and who would be completely lost without such. They don’t just do it for the sake of being spiritual or something ridiculous like that.
    Compassion for all is appreciating the diversity and accommodating it. It is not saying this is all that works and you have to do it because nothing else works!! Even if it that is true in the end.
    Fully enlightened beings have the ability to direct those who cannot do even the simplest most direct practice, at this point, by giving helpful practices appropriate for them at this time like polishing the monks sandals!! -to keep them on the ball, in the game, on the path, heading in the right direction – until they can hear and apply the truth and simplicity of the ultimate.
    Just like john at some point they will get so fed up and desperate that they will eventually conjure up the spirit required to nail it one way or another.
    One more thing when you say there are no contemporary accounts of the Buddha this is also not true. There are those who have full clairvoyant capacity to receive direct instructions from the Buddha and deities such as Chenrezig, Tara etc. Many practices and prayers, mantras and even the melodies of such are derived from direct experience with these perfect beings. You can have visions, dreams of them or you can leave your body and receive teachings directly and even receive gifts from them directly in pure lands!! This has been the case ever since the Buddha left the world to common appearances. The sambhogakya is fully accessible for some. That fact that you don’t have that ability to access this, does not mean there are no contemporary Buddhist doctrines, teachings or cross checked accounts of his life and teachings! The same can be said for Jesus and other great beings who have close karmic connections with beings on this earth now.

  5. Sorry I repeated my first post in part of my second post.
    You can delete it. I did not realize it had posted. Thanks for the opportunity.

  6. Chuckee, my friend, good to see you back again in fine form, and all mellowed out (well sort of) … btw love the new sig-pic!

    This one goes out to you … “there’s a crack in everything … that’s how the light gets in”

  7. Hey man thanks! I’d just as soon turn the page now. I got too much to learn from Peter than defending my point of view.

  8. Well call me a washed hog! If only I’d have read what you wrote Patricia, it would have spared us all my bath water retort. “May I retort?”
    no u may not monkey boy……

  9. “One honest concerted sincere effort to get the direct experience of the reality of their nature.” Think about it, and you’ve lost it. Leave the thoughts to do as they will, and if you have you will not be able to touch them. Only in that place of ‘willingness to loose’ may you come to experience/know yourself. But if you hold to concepts, there is little that can be done. The experience will not evade you; rather, the experience is hidden from you (YOU are hidden from you) because you will not allow leaving. One cannot live unless they have died. “I think. I think. I think.” is the only thing obscuring the light that you are. Such things must be sold and given to the lack, the poverty, the weak.

  10. The beauty of this interview I found to be John’s ability to weave into his story the assumptions of weakness. In the background, and brought to the foreground while he spoke was the same thread of ‘there must, of certainty, be error somewhere’. Quite fascinating and a reminder of the manner in which all religions lead many into paths of perfection in the name of imperfection. Such things are mind and concepts and can be overcome by the perfection, the greater one within. All things are possible there, and all things remain perfect everywhere.

  11. I find it interesting that the nondual crowd have no problem giving up the concept of heaven as a means of surviving the death of the body but hang onto the cocept of reincarnation as another way of surviving the death of the body,My studies of sai baba,nisargdatta,ramesh,papaji,etc causes me to conclude that there is no “one” to reincarnate..I wish john sherman had given his perspecative on this idea that there is a person or someone to survive death of the body,

  12. This is for larry annis. John says that he doesn’t know whether we survive death. He does say that there definately is someone here now, though. He says that the Presence that you are contains the feeling of Me-ness. That is why he tells people to give attention to the feeling of their Personhood. Papaji’s and John’s teacher, Ramana Maharshi, did talk about reincarnation , however. Also, the western born teacher Adi da, who shared Ramana’s realization of the right side of the heart, said that his deeper personality was that of the late Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna’s primary disciple. He claimed to have realized the ultimate truth some time after Vivekananda’s death, and then chose to return in order to help humanity.

  13. Iam supposed to look at myself? How is that soo profound?? I think its pretty abvious whats happened here…Prison…..big time crimminal Now im a big time teacher= ego trying to stay in controll…Yes this response does come from ego but soo what….Its true….No one can tell me any diffrent..The guy is deluded….Obviously….

  14. Everyone,

    We all need to consider seriously what Chris is saying. I’m just 17 and found John without any spiritual background. I was deeply numb and disassociated from my surroundings and the people around me, after a lot of trauma. When i did the looking, it “worked”, but it also launched me into a phase of around 12 or 13 weeks of miserable, gut-wrenching, god-awful, heart-tearing, pain of an indescribable variety. To be honest it actually hasn’t ended, its only gotten a little less terrible. Every night i cried and pounded on furniture, and thought about suicide every night. My thoughts were going in every direction, every second, I couldn’t move my muscles properly. This is a kind of suffering that I’m not even sure has ever been experienced by another human being. I had to pull of out my junior year of high school.

    So yes, like Chris said, if somebody’s mind-body is not ready for John’s method, then they better as hell not try it.

    Thank you everyone for your contributions, it really helped!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


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